Science

The secret life of ancient trees

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Ancient, woody elders grace our Earth.

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There’s Jomon Sugi, the 2,500-year-old Japanese Cyprus on Japan’s Yakushima island.

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The Hundred Horse Chestnut in Sicily has lived anywhere between 2,000 and 4,000 years.

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And then there’s California’s Methuselah, an ancient bristlecone pine confirmed to be 4,851 years old. Its exact location is a secret.

(A different bristlecone is pictured here. Methuselah's location is protected)

These old trees aren’t just monoliths — they play a crucial role in the global ecosystem.

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Old trees grow slowly, grow large, and stick around for a long time, which means they store carbon dioxide, keeping it from entering the atmosphere.

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How do they live so long? The trees have special, undifferentiated cells called meristem cells.

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When the tree’s tissue starts to get old, the tree lets it die, and uses meristem cells to create new tissue.

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These ancient trees could contain 99% dead tissue, says Sergi Munné-Bosch, a professor at the University of Barcelona who just published a review paper looking at old trees.

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In some ways, this cell renewal process means the oldest trees seem to be ageless.

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However, old age doesn’t mean it won’t die, Munné-Bosch says. In fact, the older a tree gets, the more vulnerable it is to non-age-related death, like disease or deforestation.

That's why it's important to protect old forests.

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